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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Kirby Air Ride Game Concept, as explained by Masahiro Sakurai

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Did we learn anything interesting?

At the start of this week, Masahiro Sakurai released his long-awaited Kirby Air Ride Game Concepts video. But the week before, he actually gave a preview of it with his Deconstruct, Analyze, and Rebuild video. Kirby Air Ride is name-dropped starting around 2:22, where he describes the thought process behind Kirby Air Ride as analysing the driving experience in videogames. Masahiro Sakurai wanted to focus on drifting around curves as an inherently fun game mechanic and experience, and wondering how to unlock the game essence in that experience and make drifting even more fun. He came up with charging during a curve and rewarding drifters with a speed burst after they successfully drifted. (And he referenced the one-button experience.)

Masahiro Sakurai briefly reviews the above in his dedicated Kirby Air Ride video, but he also goes into quite a bit of development history as well. (Of course, development history shouldn't be considered “game concept” for the purposes of learning how to be a good game developer and analysing the essence of games!)

Since I found the preceding game concept video on Super Smash Bros. Melee to be disappointing, let's go in-depth on this Kirby Air Ride video.

Masahiro Sakurai described that, as the director of the Kirby franchise at HAL Laboratory, his time was quite split between projects. This included Super Smash Bros. Melee and the new Kirby anime. The anime started in late 2021 when the GameCube was coming out, and Sakurai wanted a game to be tied in with the anime so they could promote one another. But they didn't have a non-cancelled game to be released while the anime would be airing new episodes besides Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land, a remake. Sakurai believed a racing game would be faster to develop than a full adventure game. He then went over the game essence with the charge-during-drift again.

Apparently, the City Trial mode—which is what Kirby Air Ride remains beloved to this day for—was designed to be open-ended (atypical for a racing game, where players converge to a central optimal, perfect strategy for the best score) and broad, with a unique experience every time because the RNG is determining what events occur and what power-ups spawn. Since you don't know what event occurs at the end of your seven minute City Trial experience (it could be focused on offence like Destruction Derby, top speed like a Drag Race, or gliding such as Air Glider)—assuming you don't change the default settings and force a certain Stadium, but do change the timer settings to be seven minutes, the maximum—you'd have to play flexibly during it. You wouldn't be able to do a perfect game since you wouldn't know what perfection looks like until it's too late!

Masahiro Sakurai is also pretty proud of his Sakurai checklist invention, which debuted in Kirby Air Ride and has been a fixture of most of his games ever since. I wrote more about the checklist and Kirby Air Ride (and City Trial) in my amusing Yes In My Backyard: Dilapidated Houses in the City Trial article.

For the second half of the video, Sakurai veered away from game concept discussion and into the development history. He described himself as “directly involved in almost every aspect of the game.” This includes specific feedback on the graphics and sound (music). Let me tell you about Kirby Air Ride music. There's three sources to it. One is original music, which is the majority of it. The second is music from the anime, which mostly appears during City Trial during events, such as Item Bounce (Dedede Bustle in the anime) or Flying Meteor (State of Panic in the anime). And the third is remixed music from previous games, which are primarily available as unlockable songs that will play on Air Ride or Top Ride. Item Bounce is embedded below.

Sakurai portrayed himself as rescuing Kirby Air Ride in 3.5 months after the game's development was stalled for a year in terms of getting the gameplay to actually... function. Sakurai's innovation also included writing out all of the parameters for the stars/machines, and he wanted to make the different machines all feel quite different with extreme parameters. (Those extremities also made most of the machines basically unplayable and unviable, things to be avoided on the character select screen or in City Trial.)

Kirby Air Ride Masahiro Sakurai game concepts game essence City Trial
It's not a coincidence that Sakurai showed City Trial footage during this statement.
The closest thing is another game he directed, Smash Run mode in Super Smash Bros. For 3DS.
Once upon a time, I started writing a comparison article between Smash Run and City Trial. I never finished it! City Trial is better.

I'm happy that Sakurai actually talked about the gameplay of Kirby Air Ride, though he could've gone into even more detail. Perhaps he will in future videos. I would've liked for his discussion to be less on his saviour complex and use that time to go deeper into gameplay decisions. Like, what's the deal with Top Ride?

Ludwig adores Kirby Air Ride, and he struggles to comprehend why other game developers haven't cloned it as their own game, but also make it online multiplayer. The template is there and very successful! Ludwig would like that. He'd also like a direct sequel to Kirby Air Ride, more than a port with online. ...Though he'd take that too.

Ludwig's next article about a Masahiro Sakurai video is him disagreeing about his “competing with the past” video.
Ludwig's next Sakurai game concept video article is for Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

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